ES­CAPE FROM JONESTOWN How Tracey Parks es­caped the mur­der­ous cult.

As a child 40 years ago, Tracy Parks fled the Peo­ples Tem­ple com­pound just hours be­fore Jim Jones led the largest mass sui­cide in his­tory. Now, she’s shar­ing her story

WHO - - Contents - By Johnny Dodds

Tracy Parks knelt on the rain-soaked, muddy airstrip, cradling her mother’s life­less body, shak­ing her, try­ing to wake her up. The ex­plo­sion of gun­fire had stopped, but all around her the 12-year-old saw bod­ies—some dead, oth­ers bleed­ing and moan­ing. “Get in the jun­gle,” her fa­ther, Jerry, screamed. “Run. I’ll take care of your mother.” Tracy looked up to see her older sis­ter Brenda, 18, sprint­ing across the run­way to­wards the dark wall of trees. Be­fore the younger girl knew it, she was right be­hind Brenda, rac­ing to­wards the dense Guyana rain­for­est. “I was pan­ick­ing; I wasn’t think­ing. I felt like I wasn’t in my body,” re­mem­bers Tracy. “We were so scared we just kept run­ning.”

When the fever-rid­den, nearly un­con­scious sis­ters stag­gered out of the jun­gle three days later, it was into a world of al­most unimag­in­able hor­ror. More than 900 mem­bers of the Peo­ples Tem­ple re­li­gious sect—the group that she and her fam­ily had been at­tempt­ing to flee when they were am­bushed—had com­mit­ted mass sui­cide

by drink­ing cyanide-laced grape punch. Among the dead, 304 chil­dren. Their bod­ies, along with that of their charis­matic, psy­chotic leader, Jim Jones, lay rot­ting, 11 kilo­me­tres away in the in­tense equa­to­rial heat at the group’s com­pound, known as Jonestown. The Parks girls—along with their fa­ther, brother Dale, 26, and grand­mother Edith Parks, 63—were five of just 36 sur­vivors. “My brother broke the news to me lit­tle by lit­tle as the doc­tors were nurs­ing me back,” Tracy re­calls. “‘No-one is alive,’ he told me. ‘They’re all gone.’ ”

The Jonestown mas­sacre—the largest mass sui­cide in mod­ern his­tory—made head­lines around the world as a shock­ing ex­am­ple of how the fol­low­ers of a cult could be brain­washed into evil. Hun­dreds of fol­low­ers will­ingly drank poi­son—and par­ents forced cyanide-filled sy­ringes into the mouths of chil­dren, too young to sip from cups. “This was a wake-up call,” says cult expert Rick Ross, “to show just how frag­ile the hu­man mind is and how eas­ily good, kind and rea­son­able peo­ple can be ma­nip­u­lated.”

To­day, af­ter four decades, Tracy—one of the youngest sur­vivors—still strug­gles to put the “hor­rors” be­hind her. “This wasn’t sui­cide,” in­sists Tracy, now 51 and a Cal­i­for­nia day­care owner. “This was mur­der. Those chil­dren didn’t want to die, and nei­ther did many of the adults.” Mean­while, her fa­ther, Jerry, 84, one of the few cultists who dared to stand up to Jones in Guyana, is bat­tling prostate can­cer and try­ing to push past the “guilt and shame of what I put my fam­ily through,” he says. “I’ve asked for for­give­ness so I can die in peace.”

As far back as she can re­mem­ber, Tracy’s life re­volved around Jim Jones and his church. Drawn to the min­istry’s eclec­tic gospel of Chris­tian­ity, so­cial­ist pol­i­tics and racial equal­ity, her par­ents joined the Peo­ples Tem­ple in the early 1960s, and by 1966 they and their three chil­dren fol­lowed Jones’s rapidly grow­ing con­gre­ga­tion from their home in Ohio to Ukiah, Cal­i­for­nia, where he proph­e­sied that his fol­low­ers would be safe when the “nu­clear bombs started drop­ping.” But Tracy al­ways sensed dark­ness in the church, from the armed guards who stood watch over wor­ship ser­vices to the way Jones would stomp on Bi­bles and rant against the gov­ern­ment, of­ten un­til two in the morn­ing. “Even as a child sit­ting in these meet­ings,” Tracy re­calls, “I’d look at all the adults around me and think, ‘ What’s wrong with these peo­ple? How can you think this is OK?’ ”

Over time, whis­pers of Jones’s drug use and sex­ual af­fairs with male and fe­male fol­low­ers be­gan to sur­face—and his need to con­trol ev­ery as­pect of his fol­low­ers’ lives grew more in­tense. Jones be­gan sur­round­ing him­self with body­guards and took to wear­ing dark sun­glasses at all times—he said it was “be­cause he sees too much with­out them on,” re­calls Jerry. The in­creas­ingly para­noid, self-pro­claimed “god” had be­gun to lose his grasp on real­ity, “go­ing from bad to worse to

“Jonestown is like a bad dream that never ever seems to go away” —Tracy Parks

re­ally bad,” says Jerry, who left the church on two oc­ca­sions but re­turned both times.

By 1973 Jones had be­come ob­sessed with mov­ing his church to a 1500ha jun­gle com­pound in South Amer­ica that he’d leased from the gov­ern­ment of Guyana, promis­ing his con­gre­gants, “This is par­adise. This is where we’re go­ing. We’re get­ting out of this dan­ger­ous world.” That move be­came real­ity in Au­gust 1977, af­ter a mag­a­zine pub­lished a metic­u­lously re­ported story on Jones or­der­ing the phys­i­cal and emo­tional abuse of his con­gre­gants. Tracy, along with her par­ents and sis­ter, re­luc­tantly ar­rived in Jonestown in April 1978 ( brother Dale and their grand­mother had moved there the year be­fore) and quickly dis­cov­ered it was any­thing but the par­adise they’d been promised. “That place was the clos­est thing to hell on earth,” re­calls Tracy. “The mo­ment I saw that front gate I thought, ‘ We are go­ing to die here.’ ”

Within hours of their ar­rival at Jonestown, her worst fears seemed to be re­alised. She re­calls watch­ing help­lessly as Jones goaded a hand­ful of fol­low­ers into beat­ing her fa­ther when he an­nounced that he wanted to re­turn to Cal­i­for­nia. Tracy and the other chil­dren spent eight hours a day work­ing in the fields, un­der a blis­ter­ing equa­to­rial sun, while Jones could be heard rant­ing in a haunt­ing voice about his “en­e­mies” over loud­speak­ers. Gun-tot­ing guards watched her ev­ery move. “I dare you to try to es­cape,” Jones, who by then had be­come ad­dicted to a range of nar­cotics, would threaten his fol­low­ers. “You won’t last long in that jun­gle with the pan­thers and snakes.” Con­stantly racked by hunger and ex­hausted from lack of sleep, Tracy lived, she says, in a state of “con­stant ter­ror,” but worst of all were the mock-sui­cide drills Jones called White Nights. “They could hap­pen any­time dur­ing the day or night,” Tracy re­calls. “We’d all gather to­gether in the pavil­ion, and he’d tell us, ‘It’s not go­ing to be painful. You just lie down and go to sleep.’ Ev­ery­one would be clap­ping, shout­ing, ‘ Yes, I’ll die for you.’ He got off on the ex­cite­ment.”

Back in San Fran­cisco, pres­sure from wor­ried rel­a­tives of Jonestown mem­bers forced au­thor­i­ties to fi­nally be­gin in­ves­ti­gat­ing Jones, who was be­ing ac­cused of a va­ri­ety of crimes in­clud­ing abuse, kid­nap­ping and money laun­der­ing. “I filed law­suits to take away his prop­erty, and I or­gan­ised rel­a­tives,” Tim Stoen, a for­mer tem­ple mem­ber whose son, John, 6, was be­ing held hostage by Jones in Guyana (see side­bar), re­vealed in a 2016 book-tour ap­pear­ance. “I did ev­ery­thing I pos­si­bly could.” By the time Cal­i­for­nia con­gress­man Leo Ryan ar­rived at Jonestown on Nov. 17, 1978, with a group of re­porters and fam­ily mem­bers, the drug-ad­dled Jones had be­come a seething, tick­ing time bomb. “He was telling us that mer­ce­nar­ies and the CIA were lurk­ing in the jun­gle, ready to kill us,” says Tracy. Her fa­ther—who once told Jones that “I didn’t come here to die” dur­ing one of his sui­cide drills—says he re­mem­bers feel­ing that “some­thing bad was on the verge of hap­pen­ing.” “Death was in the air,” Jerry re­calls.

Dur­ing a meet­ing with Ryan that af­ter­noon, Tracy’s grand­mother, a long­time devo­tee of Jones, sum­moned the courage to tell the con­gress­man that they were be­ing held at Jonestown against their will. Ryan per­suaded Jones to let him es­cort any­one who wanted to leave the com­pound back to the US. Fif­teen cult mem­bers—in­clud­ing all six mem­bers of the im­me­di­ate Parks fam­ily— fol­lowed Ryan and his party back to the airstrip. But be­fore the plane could de­part, the pas­sen­gers were am­bushed by gun­men sent by Jones. Ryan, three jour­nal­ists and Tracy’s mother, Pa­tri­cia, 44, were killed in the bar­rage of gun­fire; nine oth­ers were wounded. While Tracy, her sis­ter and four other teenagers hid in the jun­gle, Jones sum­moned his con­gre­ga­tion to the open-air pavil­ion, telling them that sol­diers would soon be “parachut­ing” into Jonestown to kill ev­ery­one. It was fi­nally time to “take the po­tion,” he can be heard say­ing in a ram­bling, dis­turb­ing 45-minute au­dio record­ing found af­ter­wards, urg­ing them to drink the cyanide-laced punch that had been

pre­pared in nearby vats, in­struct­ing par­ents to keep their chil­dren calm. “Don’t be afraid to die,” said Jones. “This is a rev­o­lu­tion­ary sui­cide. This is not a self-de­struc­tive sui­cide.”

Jones him­self died from a gun­shot to the head, al­though it’s un­clear if it was self­in­flicted or if he asked an­other cult mem­ber to fire the shot.

Af­ter the mas­sacre Tracy spent nearly a month in Guyana be­fore re­turn­ing to Ukiah, Cal­i­for­nia, with her fa­ther and sib­lings. But putting her life back to­gether wasn’t easy. Her mem­o­ries of school in­volve suf­fo­cat­ing panic at­tacks that of­ten re­sulted in her sud­denly sprint­ing out of class­rooms and “run­ning, run­ning, run­ning un­til my legs gave out.” Other times she’d find her­self “curled up in a foetal po­si­tion” on a sym­pa­thetic school coun­sel­lor’s floor, sob­bing. Few peo­ple in Ukiah wanted to talk about Jim Jones and “all the hurt” he brought to their com­mu­nity, she says. The one ther­a­pist she saw told her, “You’re go­ing to be lucky if you’re not crazy in 10 or 15 years.”

There are phys­i­cal scars as well. The der­ma­tol­o­gist Tracy now sees ev­ery three months has told her he be­lieves her re­cur­ring skin can­cers are caused by the re­peated blis­ter­ing sun­burns she re­ceived labour­ing in the Jonestown agri­cul­tural fields. Her sis­ter Brenda died of pan­cre­atic ill­ness, at age 52, in 2013, hav­ing never been able to shake the hor­ror of Jonestown. When they were es­cap­ing through the jun­gle, Brenda dis­cov­ered she was cov­ered in her mother’s blood and brain mat­ter from the shoot­ing— a trauma that haunted her un­til her death. “I’ve al­ways been a fighter,” says Tracy. “Knock me down, and I al­ways get back up.

But Brenda just couldn’t do that. She of­ten told me, ‘I wish that bul­let that got Mom had killed me. I hate this life.’ ”

Tracy, who spent much of her 20s us­ing al­co­hol “to keep me from feel­ing,” knows ex­actly how her sis­ter felt but in­sists it’s the mem­ory of her mother that keeps her get­ting out of bed each morn­ing. “There have been times I’ve wanted to give up, but I push through for her,” says the twice-mar­ried grand­mother of six. “I want her to be proud of me. I don’t want any­one feel­ing sorry for me.”

Ev­ery year on the an­niver­sary of the mas­sacre, Tracy places her mother’s photo on a ta­ble by the front win­dow of her house and sur­rounds it with lit can­dles. Her story has no clo­sure, no happy end­ing. “Time doesn’t heal any­thing,” she says, shak­ing her head. “When I was a lit­tle girl, I used to stare at this sign [Jones] had nailed up over his chair in church that read, ‘Those who for­get the past are con­demned to re­peat it.’ I didn’t un­der­stand what that meant back then, but I do now.

A SUR­VIVOR’S STORY Jonestown sur­vivor Tracy Parks (in­set, to­day and at age 12) re­calls the hor­ror she felt when she learned of the mass sui­cide in which Jim Jones (in­set left) and 909 of his fol­low­ers died on Nov. 18, 1978. “I knew Jim Jones wanted us dead,” she says.

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